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March 12, 2024
I Guess Mukbang Is My Plan B

A pivot to making online video content has one writer questioning, well, everything

The crack of crab shells.

Assorted “yummy” noises.

I have been watching hours of mukbang content and taking notes. I’m considering pivoting from unemployment to making niche online food videos in my apartment.

The crunch of double-fried chicken. 

The sound of beef gravy slowly being sipped from a Styrofoam takeout cup.

The current scene: I am staring at my laptop. I am making eye contact with a stranger. I have given up on LinkedIn. I am scribbling on a yellow legal pad. I am feeding myself Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. I am sucking the red-hot cheese powder off my fingers. I do as I’m told and “smash the subscribe button” on a video I like of someone eating crab rangoons. Crabs rangoon?

My plan A for almost 20 years has been to earn a living as a journalist. But forces beyond my control are making that harder—namely technology and natural decrepitude. So plan B is mukbang.

The existence of mukbang is a perfect example of the fractured media landscape: mention it to most Americans, and they’ll likely ask, “What’s that?” And yet, every day, millions of people watch other people eat entire buffets of glistening glass noodles, plump soup dumplings, and gooey mozzarella cheese sticks on their iPhones.

I discovered mukbang one day in 2022, scrolling TikTok. A young Korean woman named Sulgi was frying up a small army of sausages—cocktail wieners, kielbasas, hot dogs—in a pan with a side of fried eggs, a block of SPAM, and a bowl of rice, and before popping them in her mouth, one by one, some 32 in total, she smiled at me. I smiled back.

That video currently has 2.6 million views.

Mukbang was born in South Korea around 2010, where endless cool things are birthed: K-pop, Bong Joon-ho, sheet masks. $225 flat-screens. Squid Game. I can divide my life into two broad epochs: me eating Texas chili before adding kimchi as a topping, and me after.

Mukbang is a blend of two Korean words: “mukja,” which means “eating,” and the word for “broadcast,” which is “bangsong.” And that’s exactly what mukbang is at its core—people broadcasting their eating on camera. What started as young South Koreans devouring massive meals while live streaming and chatting on platforms like AfreecaTV and YouTube soon became popular worldwide. There are three major schools of mukbang: the original from South Korea, the English-speaking version dominated by Americans, and everything else. I watch them all. I’m trying to be scientific while I watch dozens of hours of the stuff. There are no hard and fast rules about how much food makes a mukbang, but from my observations, I’d say there’s a quantity range from “one order of large fries, please” to “American-style Thanksgiving dinner for a family of eight.” Other notes of mine include: Chew calmly but with passion and Don’t act too serious. These are reminders to myself. They will inform my new career. I can do this, I thought. A recruiter told me not to call myself unemployed. He suggested telling prospective employers I’m “exploring new opportunities,” as if I’m Magellan.

The first thing you should know about Mukbang is that it is easy to dismiss and stereotype: weirdos overeating on the internet. But it’s not that. Well, not entirely.

Mukbang is a surprisingly intimate format—it’s just me staring at another human being, their mouth greasy with mayo or cheese. I have watched Japanese viral mukbanger Kenty Cook snarf countless pork gyoza and squid-stuffed takoyaki dough balls in his small apartment-slash-kitchen for hours, only to, later that night, dream about watching Kenty Cook snarf countless pork gyoza and squid-stuffed takoyaki dough balls.

@kenty_cookTakoyaki 🐙

♬ オリジナル楽曲 – ケンティー健人/kenty

It’s also performance art—every upload a seat at a table with your best friend or a long-lost family member. There are long, awkward silences as the person you’re watching takes a moment to savor a bite of salty-sweet Korean street toast or a mouthful of spicy enoki mushrooms. In that quiet, you’re drawn in, closer. The next moment, this human being is giggling or describing the taste of giant, prehistoric prawns plucked from a boiling broth, bloodred with gochujang, and you’re transported to that table.

What they don’t tell you about unemployment, other than the shocking lack of money, is that it’s lonely. Mukbang is a fairly effective—if temporary—cure for that. For instance, I don’t eat lunch alone anymore.

Dr. Andrew Harris confirms this. He’s a psychology senior lecturer at Nottingham Trent University who studies how online and digital technologies “interact with our psychosocial functioning.” I emailed him, and he told me mukbang “has been shown to help individuals overcome loneliness by creating a sense of community.” His research found that “some of the motivations for mukbang use can include fulfilling the need to eat with company and feeling emotionally connected.”

There are thousands of mukbang channels on YouTube, as well as on Twitch and Instagram Reels, and a vast, loyal audience of viewers is hungry for this content. As such, there are controversies. First off, this being the internet, there is drama: viral mukbang stars like Eat With Boki have been accused of spitting out their food and editing it from their videos. Popular mukbang star Nicholas Perry, known online as Nikocado Avocado, has a long, documented history of online feuds and meltdowns. That’s show business, I suppose.

A more persistent criticism of mukbang is the belief that it promotes unhealthy eating habits. There is plenty of armchair analysis to back this up, but not as much long-term research. A 2020 study in the scientific journal Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry concluded (anticlimactically) that mukbang “is not necessarily experienced as either helpful or destructive, but as simultaneously useful and hurtful.” However, in a study published in Health Informatics Journal, researchers found that videos that featured unhealthy overeating were more popular than those that didn’t.

It’s easy to watch a few seconds of a mukbang video and judge what you see. Dr. Harris’s writings mentions that there are negative consequences to mukbang, including “excessive food consumption and weight gain due to social comparison and mimicking.” I did stumble on a clickbait-y article that quoted a dietician saying mukbang romanticized overconsumption and “emotional eating.”

When I read that, my first thought was: “Emotional eating” is just another way to say “eating.”

I’m now watching South Korean YouTube personality Tzu Yang use her chopsticks to gingerly guide coiled octopus tentacles into her mouth, which she delicately and loudly inhales. She’s relaxed in front of the camera, mischievous and slightly reckless. She smiles and gobbles, and we’re sitting across from each other. Tzuyang has over nine million subscribers, but it’s just us hanging out, and she’s eating piles of chicken and anchovy soup with knife-cut noodles that look like the wet end of a mop, or approximately 28 pounds of oysters.

In another video, Tzuyang chomps tteokbokki, crimson rice cakes with gochujang sauce, and in yet another, she wolfs down 12 servings of stir-fried pork entrails, which look like calamari. She’s a star—a master.

I need advice.

I asked Linda Dam, an assistant professor in the School of Journalism and Media Studies at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, what she would tell someone who wanted to become a mukbang influencer.

Linda and her colleague Benjamin Burroughs published a study last year titled “(Over)Eating with Our Eyes: An Examination of Mukbang Influencer Marketing and Consumer Engagement with Food Brands” in the Journal of Promotion Management. Their research delved into all things mukbang, including how the accounts maintain a hold on audiences. They also studied how food brands have chosen to collaborate with mukbang influencers, which has proven to be a lucrative relationship.

“Mukbang is like sitting down at a table and eating with someone,” Dam tells me. She compares it to creating a sense of trust in the content creator’s opinions. Dam mentions how vital eye contact is in building a parasocial relationship with someone online. Eye contact and a conversational tone. Like a date.

I recognize the term “parasocial.” It has become a trendy buzzword in our social media age, a shorthand that describes a perceived connection between a person and someone they do not know in real life. Linda talked about the relationships viewers think they have with mukbang personalities, and I understood that without judgment. When I was about 14 years old, I convinced myself that David Byrne, the lead singer of the Talking Heads, was a friend of mine, or at least would be a friend of mine if he and I were ever to meet. I got over this fantasy, but I have fond memories of living in that delirium and imagining the advice he’d give me. Make-believe David Byrne assured me I wouldn’t be alone forever. I’m still waiting to see how that plays out.

I know I’m not friends with Tzuyang or Kenty Cook. But what if, you know? That question is part of the fun. What if?

I scribble a note: Look into the camera. Pretend I’m talking to someone. To one person. Make eye contact.

I underline the following: Buy a ring light? A tripod? A quality microphone?

The success of Korean mukbang is a product of Korean food culture, which prizes communal eating and culinary variety, like the assortment of pickled foods and other savory tidbits that arrive at the start of the meal, known as banchan. But mukbang has branched off into subgenres as it’s spread, proving an adaptable and universal content format.

“Mukbang transcends cultures and borders,” Dr. Harris wrote to me. “It is easy to see how this trend of watching others eat can move west when we consider that there is arguably nothing more relatable than food consumption and our love of food.”

Harris’s research points out subtle differences between Korean and Western mukbang. Korean mukbang is usually live streamed, and English-speaking mukbangs are usually prerecorded. In America, the “content creator” is the star; in Korea, it’s the food.

Linda also pointed out to me that the United States has a long history of public eating spectacles too. Every year in Coney Island, for instance, perfectly healthy adults compete to see how many hot dogs they can gargle. She also brought up the fact that there is a growing mukbang movement focusing on healthy eating, and I imagine sitting in front of a hubcap full of brussels sprouts. I like brussels sprouts.

I make a note: You can eat green vegetables if you want.

Next I reached out to Maxwell Theodore Lebeuf, who goes by Mukbang Maxwell on TikTok, where he has 1.4 million followers. I was a little nervous to chat with him because he’s a big mukbang celebrity to me. Maxwell lives in Toronto, and his account is an intense and thorough tour of that great city’s diverse cuisine. I asked him if he had any advice, and he said, “It’s important to eat food you want to eat and enjoy, rather than forcing yourself to eat something that doesn’t taste good.”

I crossed out “you can eat green vegetables” and drew a circle around the words “fish sticks.”

“Lean into the satisfying crunches,” he continues. I write that down. “Do you want to make people hungry? Do you want to make people happy? Set an objective. Write a manifesto. Write down some notes about why you want to make your eating video.”

Maxwell was drawn to mukbang for practical and creative reasons. I think it’s easy to dismiss the artistic ambitions of content creators when they’re out there, begging for views, selling sponsorships, and making people feel things. Maxwell started making cooking videos during the peak of COVID-19 lockdowns and stumbled into mukbang, where he found an audience and found himself.

But he stressed that mukbang is about storytelling. That is his main advice. The key to a good eating video is to “find a little story to tell.” I thought back to one of my favorite videos he made, where he ate a bag full of Filipino fast food chain Jollibee’s fried chicken and drank a cup of gravy with pursed lips like it was a sacred liquid. He soaked his mustache. The story? Act one: Does this gravy taste good? Act two: Yes.

@mukbangmaxwell Jolibee #mukbang #asmr #eatingshow ♬ original sound – Mukbang Maxwell

Maxwell reveres Korean mukbang. “What they did is created punk-rock eating videos,” he says. “It’s frowned upon to eat by yourself. It’s frowned upon to eat large quantities of food.” Korean mukbang pushes back on those social norms. Maxwell went on to describe his videos. He sees them as subversive too. It’s a “surprise to see a big guy enjoying his food in the West.” He adds that it’s “shocking to see somebody genuinely try to enjoy the food they’re eating.” Maxwell loves to eat, and he expresses that love through mukbang.

I wrote a note: Enjoy your food.

Followed by another: What are other foods I enjoy?


Shrimp cocktail?

Domino’s Extravaganza pizzas?

I contacted James Park, content creator, editor, and author of Chili Crisp: 50+ Recipes to Satisfy Your Spicy, Crunchy, Garlicky Cravings. Someone gave me a hot tip that James is a mukbang fanatic. And the rumor was true—he was eager to chat. “I really love mukbang,” he said. “I always get delighted to talk about it, and it’s also very interesting to see how it has been evolving.”

Does he watch mukbang? “I think my entire YouTube algorithm is about food and eating and cooking.” James watches Korean mukbang because it connects him to his heritage: the foods, the sounds, the vibe.

He also explains some of the deeper cultural currents underneath Korean mukbang. “In Korean culture, eating alone is looked down on. Like, if you are seen in public eating alone, people will think, ‘Oh, you don’t have any friends.’ A lot of people are afraid to being seen eating in public alone.” He mentions how he’d put on mukbang videos while eating dinner in college because it made him feel like he was sharing a meal with another person. “When I was in school, I’d watch mukbang when I was eating by myself at home, just to make me feel like I wasn’t alone.”

Mukbang has also changed in Korea. “Nowadays, it’s less about the amount of food.” Just a few years ago, mukbangers could get famous for “eating an obscene amount of food, and people would watch out of jealousy. Like, wow, this person can eat so much and stay skinny.”

I bring up ASMR, the pleasant, tingling sensation that can be triggered in some people when exposed to soothing sounds. Is that why mukbang is so noisy? James tells me the mouth sounds are cultural. “If you eat super quietly, your Korean mom or grandma will wonder if you’re enjoying your food.” In Korean culture, gulping and gobbling is like applause. I made that note: Smack your lips. I made another note: Slurp.

“A lot of mukbang in Korea includes conversation,” James adds, “not just ASMR-style eating content. In a way, [viewers] get the benefits of social eating aspects without being really social.” I don’t say it, but I think it: Be still, my beating introvert’s heart.

What is his advice? “Figure out what your niche is. Is it about how you eat? How you talk and connect? What are you good at?” I write a note: Guacamole? I’m good at making guacamole and salsa and could eat those for days. Is that my niche? Mexican food appetizers?

I want to talk to James more. I want to eat with him, share a big messy meal. I want to be his friend. But I have work to do. Résumés to send out. Videos to watch. Plans to make. I need a job interview haircut—and a job interview. The world is changing. I can change with it. “Smash that subscribe button,” I whisper to myself. I can do this.

One final note: Make eye contact.

John DeVore

John DeVore is a James Beard award-winning essayist. He's written for Food and Wine, Eater, and Esquire, among others, and his debut memoir, 'Theatre Kids,' comes out next year.